When alcohol becomes the solution — and makes shipping sustainable

Using quantum chemistry, C1 has patented a groundbreaking innovation that makes green methanol economically viable and allows for decentralized plants. Here is why we invested.

Did you know that methanol is one of the most important alcohols in the world? With about 110 million tons per year, it is one of the most-produced chemicals. Methanol is used as a basic material for all sorts of chemical processes and products such as plastics for packaging, polymer fibers for the textile industry, paint, solvents, adhesives, diapers, refrigerants and much more. It is safe to handle, easy to store, and, therefore essential to our everyday life.

While methanol is widely used, it comes with problems. The biggest: up until now, it has been mainly obtained from coal or natural gas. That is why it is also called black methanol, which makes up for 99,8% of all the methanol used worldwide (with 65% using natural gas and 35% coming from coal). This explains why global methanol production is responsible for 0,6% of all global GHG emissions (220 Mt CO2e in 2020). If this methanol or products made of it are combusted or otherwise oxidized, the overall carbon footprint goes even up to 1% of global emissions.

Methanol gets even more important

Those figures alone are reason enough to find a more sustainable way to produce methanol. Yet there is another one: methanol is an emerging energy source, with great importance as a future fuel for those sectors that cannot be electrified and are hard to defossilize. Like shipping. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, last year ordered 12 container ships that will be powered with methanol. For Maersk and the shipping industry, this is a crucial step to bringing down emissions.

However, the equation only adds up if we use green methanol to power the ship’s engines. This is possible: renewable energy can be used to electrolytically generate hydrogen from water, which is converted into methanol using CO2. The carbon for synthesizing the methanol is not supplied by fossil fuels but by CO2 from biomass or extracted from the air or industrial plants.

In our life cycle assessment (LCA) for C1, we evaluated the environmental impact of ramping-up green methanol production. We assessed how the environmental impacts change when green methanol displaces black methanol or conventional heavy fuel oil on the market. Our assessment show that green methanol leads to a substantial reduction in GHG emissions of up to 2.1 kg CO2-eq. per kg methanol. This is a reduction in GHG emissions of 76% when replacing heavy fuel oil in the shipping sector and 82% when replacing black methanol.Using green methanol to displace black methanol or heavy fuel oil also reduces the demand for fossil energy of up to 46 MJ per kg of methanol. This shows that C1 offers a high potential to drastically reduce GHG emissions in the chemical or shipping industry.

So why is the share of green methanol still at a ridiculously small 0,2 percent? It is simple: while the idea has been around for decades, until now it has been too expensive to produce green methanol. The so-called green premium has just been too high (and the actual costs of black methanol have not been internalized).

Say goodbye to the green premium

C1 is here to change that and to bring down the green premium. The team around renowned chemist and co-founder, Dr. Marek Checinski, has developed and patented a disruptive homogeneous catalysis for the production of green methanol. Their process is much more productive and efficient than the heterogeneous catalysis currently in use, which dates back to a patent from 1921. It works at significantly lower pressure and temperature, allows for more flexible operations, and scales easier. The results are significant advantages in terms of investment and operating costs. These cost savings can partially offset the significantly higher production costs to produce green methanol, thus favoring the transition from black methanol to green methanol. And making it viable to bring carbon into an economic cycle.

Even with C1’s catalyst there will be a small green premium. A changing regulatory framework does the rest, creating a rapidly growing market for green methanol.

Another key advantage in this regard is the reactor design. Today, methanol is produced by a few gigantic plants. About 80% of the world’s methanol is produced in only 20 major refineries. C1’s technology, on the other hand, fits in small and decentralized plants, which makes it possible to go where CO2 is a waste product, and renewable energy is cheap and readily available.

Driving chemistry innovation

C1’s innovative catalyst to produce green methanol is the first chemical process they have developed on its proprietary technology platform, yet not the last one. Building on high-performance computing and quantum chemistry C1 runs simulations to rethink chemical processes and their unsolved puzzles.

Innovations in the chemical industry used to take a long time because they were primarily based on conventional experiments. Quantum chemistry is opening a new chapter and becoming more important as computing power increases. This makes it possible to develop chemical processes that would have been impossible to think of just a few years ago — as demonstrated in the case of green methanol.

We are happy and proud to partner up with C1 and the team around serial founder Christian Vollmann and quantum mechanic Dr. Marek Checinski. Other investors include Dr. Jürgen Hambrecht, formerly CEO and chairman of the supervisory board of BASF, Prof. Wolfgang Reitzle, most recently chairman of the supervisory board of Linde, and Jim Hagemann Snabe, chairman of the supervisory board of Siemens — all proving the significance of C1’s innovative approach.

Authors: Jan Christoph Gras and Lena Thiede, co-founding partners at Planet A Ventures

This article was first published on linkedin on March 31, 2022

ABOUT PLANET A VENTURES

Planet A is a VC fund partnering with European green tech start-ups that have a significant positive impact on our planet while building scalable businesses globally. Our mission is to contribute to an economy within the planetary boundaries. We support innovation in four key areas: climate mitigation, waste reduction, resource savings and biodiversity protection. First in the European VC world we offer scientific impact assessments to support our investment decisions and empower founders to manage and improve their impact. A wide network of experienced founders and experts support our portfolio companies. Investments include Traceless, Ineratec, goodcarbon and Makersite.

Contact: hello@planet-a.com

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Planet A Ventures

Planet A Ventures

We are an impact investment fund targeting start-ups that have a measurable positive impact on our planet while building scalable businesses.